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A joyous tribute to Charles's fruity Nell

Nell Gwynn, Criterion Theatre, Coventry, to March 24.

She remains the most legendary orange saleswoman of all time. Very fruity and extremely “ap-peeling” to men in general and Charles II in particular. By the time they met, mind you, Nell Gwynn had moved from flogging fruit to strutting her stuff on the stage. Jessica Swale’s play is not just a tribute to a resourceful woman of her times who moved from Cheapside to Pall Mall via the royal bed; it’s also a joyous celebration of theatre itself. Charles it was who reopened the theatres after the Puritan purge of all things entertaining. And Charles it was who allowed women on to the stage for the first time, much to the indignation of some. David Butler gives a splendidly over-the-top performance as Edward Kynaston, an ac-tor of the old school who has played female parts hitherto. It’s easy to see why the almost permanently priapic King preferred gazing down on Nell than on Edward. Ignoring all directions, she positioned her cleavage under the royal box and the rest, as they say, was history. Nicol Cortese gives her most memorable Criterion performance yet as Nell. And that’s saying something. She seems to be all over stage and, at one point, down in the audience.

Her expressions change as quickly as her costumes. Saucy and flirtatious for sure, cheeky too (the former orange-seller is able to take the pith out of the King while keeping her head on her shoulders).

But we’re also given a telling glimpse into the fear and self-doubt of a woman of her time desperately trying to make the most of her assets and talents. Helped by a set both royal and theatrical, Keith Railton’s direction seems to bring out the best, not only from Nicol and David, but other cast members too numerous to mention. It helps that the play, winner of the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in 2016, has some great one-liners. Female actors on the stage? “Imagine,” one of them drily observes, “We’ll be writing plays next.” Filling theatres, too. Nell Gwynn is sold out for the rest of the week, justifiably so.

Barbara Goulden writes: Nell Gwynn is one of the most ambitious projects to date at the Criterion, with lavish costumes, a superb set and both baroque and bawdy songs for orange seller dear Nellie to dance and sing along with.

Nicol Cortese is a delight in this 16-strong production taking us into the heart of 17th century Restoration England where she catches the eye of philandering monarch Charles ll. Well perhaps not philandering - in his glossy black wig, Pete Gillam was simply doing his kingly duty, first with haughty Lady Castlemaine (Cathryn Bowler), then with the naughty French mistress (Leonie Slater), and always with his beloved Nell, who in real life bore him two children...but hardly at all with his fiesty Portuguese wife, Queen Catherine, who was actually my favourite.

Christine Evans had the time of her life spitting cobra-like insults which contrasted so wonderfully with coquettish Leonie. In the midst of it all is down-to-earth Nell as she snatches the leading lady role in The King's Company from Edward Kynaston, played with unravelling madness by David Butler with fake boobs and a hairnet.

David was hugely entertaining and the whole cast worked hard so to capture and maintain the atmosphere of the age, greatly assisted by the music. Keith Railton's direction was terrific but Jessica Swale's award-winning script was occasionally clunky. Although I did love the "Oh God's" exclamations whenever the King Charles which, of course, he replied: "Not quite".

It's a triumphant sell-out for The Criterion.

Pictured: Nicol Cortese as Nell Gwynn

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